Je Suis Samuel: Freedom of Speech, Cancel Culture, and the Need To Educate

Yesterday’s shocking news of the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty resonates with- and horrifies educators all over the world. Paty was a beloved teacher in a middle school who wanted to discuss ethics and morality and the freedom of speech using cartoons from the infamous Charlie Hebdo magazine mocking the prophet Mohammed. He gave Muslim students the option to look away. He did all the right things an educator should do in choosing material that was thought-provoking but very educational, understood particular sensitivities and allowed students not to participate, and continued with what was presumably a detailed, complex discussion of the subject matter, examining different sides. And yet, he paid the price with his life for attempting to engage in freedom of speech in an educational context.

As an educator myself, I am so deeply saddened, outraged, and disgusted by the murder of this well-intentioned man that was conducted in the most gruesome way. I’m also outraged at the way the murderer and those who support him could not have the moral complexity and nuanced thought to be able to understand that Monsieur Paty was not personally doing something to mock Islam, but trying to present a controversial topic to his students in a classroom setting. His beheading is the worst possible example of cancel culture, for if we cannot discuss the most difficult subjects in an educational institution, what hope do we have for the rest of society?

Religion, race, culture, and sexuality are extremely fraught topics; they are loaded with centuries of history and baggage, they are often used as means for discrimination, and they become a lightning rod for morality. While teaching, I tend to use a very diverse curriculum, but I am always very careful to listen to those who disagree, whose viewpoints might be conservative, politically incorrect, or generally not “acceptable.” This is important, for we need students to see differing opinions on subjects they may hold near and dear. We all have our hot buttons, or triggers that will be pushed for some issue or other. But a good educator will steer the discussion carefully if someone says something too off-color, or will try to ask more about where this person is coming from and look at the flaws in their logic.

This becomes especially challenging when we are discussing subjects that involve people who have been historically and/or systematically marginalized. It is true that there may be a “right” answer (i.e. there is NEVER an excuse for the police brutality against innocent black people). France has had a long history of not being successful with integrating Muslims into society, and of statistically verifiable discrimination. While I love satires and parodies, Charlie Hebdo is sometimes repulsive and tasteless. In any case, we need to allow the dissenters to speak, to be countered by those who disagree, and to allow discussion to continue in a constructive, healthy way. Not doing so, in my opinion, is what creates all kinds of backlash, trolling online, violent protests, and frightening political climates. We did not listen to the poor, white conservatives in the recent past; Trump gave them something to latch onto, and now what we have is worse than anything we could have imagined. Liberals AND conservatives and people on all points of the spectrum all need to speak out and be heard.

A terrorist/extremist is a terrorist/extremist no matter what the belief system or location. The Chechen-origin Islamic extremist Abdoulakh Anzorov, who murdered Samuel Paty (and who was himself shot by the police), exhibits the same thought processes and behavior as the six Michigan militia man who wanted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or the Basque separatists back in the day. These sociopaths generally feel marginalized, on the outside of society, and feel that something valuable of theirs is being attacked or taken away. Horrible deeds committed by these asocial individuals have always occurred through history, continue to occur, and unfortunately probably will always occur to some degree. We need to be watchful both of these individuals and of the social conditions/psychological factors that create these them. Intervention is key, just as we saw in the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer, to foil any violent acts.

Many young people today engage in cancel culture, where they do not want to hear, discuss, or read about points of view that differ greatly from their own, due to their own sensitivities. We must learn to separate the personal from the idea in an educational setting, to practice a sense of detachment, even when we may feel very offended or outraged by something. This is not to say that there should not be healthy limits, for sometimes in America there is an excess of freedom of speech that allows all manner of anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-everything hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have done a terrible job of monitoring hate speech. But I am talking about carefully moderated, academic debate for the sport of it, because that is the only thing that can truly develop our minds and make us better human beings in a world that is becoming frighteningly violent.

Speaking in (Many) Tongues: The Benefits of Being a Polyglot

At the end of this week is the international polyglot conference (www.polyglotconference.com, for those who are interested), an event which I am greatly looking forward to. There will be numerous talks in all aspects of language, learning languages, what it’s like to be a polyglot, and more. People from all over the globe will be attending, bonding not through the common enemy of Covid-19 but through language. This is something that is truly heartwarming and uplifting to the soul. When we think about what separates us from all other living beings, it is our specifically verbal mode of communication. Cats may meow in different ways to get different things, as any cat lover knows all too well, primates have different shouts to express their distress in the forest, and birds can deploy a variety of calls during mating season. We are also the only living creatures that have a written mode of communication, thanks to the ways our brains have developed from our pre-verbal days. 

What does it mean to be a polyglot? The word polyglot itself, as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, comes from the Greek, “polyglottos” which is made up of poly- (many) and glotta (language). Fairly self-explanatory. But in reality, what it means is having to grasp different grammars, syntaxes, vocabularies, phonetic systems, expressions, idioms, and even physical gestures. When one is a polyglot, it requires one to shift modalities in thought and in one’s very being. Naturally, polyglots will differ in their levels of fluency with the languages that they speak. Neuroscientists and linguists have studied how the brains of people who speak more than one language work, and it differs from those who speak only one language. A linguist once told me, for example, with people who are bilingual, two sets of vocabularies are coming up simultaneously, and the speaker will choose whichever one is appropriate to the situation. This all happens in a fractions of a second, a completely subconscious process that one has no idea of. 

On the day-to-day level, what this means is there is a certain richness of language and expressions one can choose from, a sort of “word palette” with many verbal colors to choose from. Certain languages just “get it right” with expressing certain emotions or thoughts. Whenever I see cats, I immediately lapse into Tamil because I find it more suitable to speaking to them in ways that are humorously chiding, loving, and expressive. There is a certain intimacy of the language that I cannot find in any other language I speak, and I confess I think cats love being spoken to in Tamil. A Korean native told me that Korean is so much more expressive with colors, that there are multiple words for yellow. Italian is incredibly robust and rollicking and highly physicalized, Russian is very rich and melancholy, English is very inventive and has a tremendous vocabulary that draws on many languages. The list goes on, and for each polyglot, the buffet of languages offers much to choose from. There is of course always the difference between speaking and reading and writing language. For some people, the auditory skills are much stronger, whereas with others, the literary skills dominate. 

As one polyglot who speaks 7 languages told me, he feels that he has a different identity in each language. This is very beautiful and also very true, for each language will bring out a different facet to our identities, freeing us or confining us or perhaps allowing us to be more serious or more humorous, more or less expressive. Many children of immigrants struggle, for they do not speak their parents’ native tongues easily, and often report feeling “forced” to speak those languages. This is truly a shame, for I feel that so much of culture is attached to language; perhaps many of our multicultural problems in the United States would be ameliorated by people speaking more than one language, therefore having a window into another culture. In many parts of the United States, such as California, it is advantageous to speak Spanish and one can initiate a conversation with a native Spanish/non-English speaker who will usually be grateful and this can facilitate an interaction to go much more smoothly. 

Sadly, language education begins too late in most of the United States, past critical periods, for when it comes to language acquisition, younger the better. I saw an example of this when a French woman brought her five-year-old daughter to a sewing workshop. They had only come to the U.S. five months before and her daughter was placed in kindergarten without knowing a word of English. The little girl watched me and asked, “Where are you putting buttons?” Though spoken with a mild French accent, it was astonishing, for the child had grasped vocabulary, syntax, and understood how to formulate a question in a remarkably short time. Children are like a sponge at a young age, and we must teach them non-native languages as soon as possible. A friend sent her children to Spanish language preschool so that they would have the advantage of another language; her children spoke Spanish with perfect accents, and no one would have suspected it was not their native language.

Language is a great way of uniting the world, and I can only hope that as so much tension and strife is tearing apart our world now, we can come together through the beauty of language, whatever those languages may be. If there is a language you’ve been yearning to learn, try it! It teaches us so much about ourselves, about others, about humility and patience. And it might just bring you a new friend, lover, or colleague. 

Who Got It Right as a Woman II: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Femininity is something very controversial in the discussion of feminism, as are traditional gender roles. Being ladylike–even the use of the word “lady”–can draw a lot of ire from many women. Being a woman who appeals to men is also often a taboo topic, as women are often told to be strong in themselves and never to need a man. Taking an interest in one’s appearance is also regarded as frivolous. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was feminine, somewhat traditional in her gender roles (at least earlier in her life), ladylike (she was, after all, the First Lady), a woman who appealed to many men and was thought quite desirable, and a global icon of style and elegance even decades after her death. She always seemed to have a suitable man on her arm to escort her to the American Ballet Theater, and made it classy to go to Studio 54. Jackie never quite defined herself as a feminist, though she supported Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, went back to work later in life, and did not marry her third “husband,” her beloved companion Maurice Tempelsman. And we can consider her a role model for women, someone who really “got it right” and was not bitter about her gender. Let us examine why.

Jackie had conviction. From the time she was small, she knew what she liked and what her tastes were. She read Chekhov as a child, had a passion for the arts, and a longing to go to Paris. She carried her passions with her when she went to the White House: she restored that historic mansion, she brought the fine arts to great visibility, making it fashionable to be cultured, and thanks to her efforts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was founded. After a level of a few years, she eventually found her way back to her love of books, becoming a well-respected editor in New York. She fought for causes she believed in, like the preservation of Grand Central Terminal. Despite that infamous whispering voice, she was no shrinking violet, and she knew herself and her mind. That is why Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie was so poor, for she conveyed none of the strength of Mrs. Kennedy.

She was emotionally intelligent. Jack Kennedy’s presidency would not have been the same without her. As recently released audiotapes reveal, she was a shrewd observer of politics and politicians, seeing through people’s façades and offering her own opinions. She raised two children well, putting their well-being as her priority, knowing that extensive contact with the Kennedy clan would possibly lead them into a downward spiral like Ethel Kennedy’s kids. But she did not shelter her children, sending them out on their own as teens and young adults to spend time in Appalachia or India. Jackie wanted her children to toughen up and not to be pampered, to get out there and see the world and people from all walks of life.

She was highly cultured. Though she gave the appearance of being a mere clothes horse, Jackie was very well read in the classics, history, and spoke other languages like French. She appreciated great art, classical music, and clothing design. It was not enough to be an American first lady; she was global, show the world how enjoyable it was to visit other countries, make it admirable to be more than just a socialite. Thanks to her, high culture in America experienced a renaissance, something that was so necessary after the war and America’s revival. Later in life, after being widowed twice, she became a book editor and finally was able to use her intellect that she had had to hide away as the first lady and as the wife of powerful men.

She moved with the times. The beribboned 1930’s girl with her horses at shows, the elegant debutante of the 40s, the prim and proper young socialite of the 50s, Jackie Kennedy reflected the zeitgeist of America. Through the 60s, she went from graceful First Lady observing protocol in her manner and her dress to jet setter in minidresses without stockings who enjoyed dancing late night on a yacht or walking barefoot in Capri. And when she was widowed again in the 70s, she showed us how to adapt: she put on pants and a sweater, went downtown to a high-rise office, and became a single working mother. She enjoyed the company of men, but she also came into her own at this time, befriending Andy Warhol and enjoying New York City and her career. And then as relationship conventions changed, her companion Maurice moved in with her and lived with her for the rest of her life. They never married, despite Jackie being a devout Catholic. And yet it always remained acceptable, for Jackie was always dignified.

She promoted diversity decades before it was fashionable. She brought African-American opera singer Grace Bumbry to the White House, was a friend of gay Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and adored Nehru, just as he adored her. She had a lifelong love of India and Russia and traveled there multiple times. 

She maintained a sense of mystery. That Sphinx-like smile the lack of interviews, the low voice–it all added up to create a personality whom we wanted to get to know, but who did not want us to get to know her past a certain point. Tabloids speculated on every aspect of her life, and yet she remained silent. In an era where everything is on Instagram and celebrities make candles named after body parts, Jackie remains a paragon of how to keep to oneself and let only those who are close into one’s confidences.

She enjoyed being a woman. Jackie loved fashion, decorating, motherhood, and marriage. She loved presenting herself elegantly, be it in Oleg Cassini or jodhpurs. She loved it when men took an interest in her, offered her courtesies, drove her places. In short, she loved men. Even as she always did as she wanted, being her own kind of feminist, she still always loved men. Various writers have described her as “seductive” or “a geisha”–there is nothing wrong with that. She often used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted, and even charmed Nikita Khrushchev.

American feminism can often be very prescriptive as to what is correct or not regarding how we present ourselves as a woman. If we dress too nicely, we might not be taken seriously enough. We are forced to work in a work culture that is really set up for men, and that often penalizes us for wanting to be who we are, be it a tomboy or a princess or anything in between. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis showed us that we can embrace our womanhood and it does not mean any compromise of strength or independence. She showed us how to have a will of steel wrapped in a velvet glove. The fact that we still admire her decades later shows us that she was a timeless role model as a woman.

Celebrating 8 Years!!

Celebrating 8 Years!!

When I started this blog eight years ago, I had no idea what it could become and how much it would nurture and support me. It’s been a wonderful journey through literature, art, politics, social issues, interviews, and anything and everything to do with creativity. During this time, I have grown as an opera singer and developed a writing career, finished two book manuscripts, and completed an MFA. This blog has been there for me during some very very difficult times, which is a testament to the healing power of art. 

In my first post on September 30, 2012, I paid tribute to my favorite American author, Willa Cather, the Grande Dame of American letters. It only seems fitting to pay tribute to her through a quote from The Song of the Lark, in which she describes the heroine’s artistic awakening in her soul after seeing the Chicago Symphony perform. The heroine, Thea, realizes this inner light is so powerful and yet so fragile, and she is afraid that it could be taken from heron her crowded journey home. Cather writes, 

“They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. she would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it–it!

This breathlessly passionate scene in the novel was what propelled me forward and led me to where I am today. I can only recommend that everyone find what magnificently inspires them, that ecstasy that drives you forward and can’t be taken away. 

Thank you, Willa, Lev, William, Oscar, Wolfgang, Giuseppe, Antonín, Jan, Niccolò, and all the countless artists of all media, dead or alive, who have magnificently inspired me!